Recovering from the School Year from Hell with Three Forms of Synergy


As educators nationwide limp towards the finish line of the most disruptive school year in living memory, educational leaders face a multi-faceted challenge. Teachers, professors, child care providers, informal educators, and all those amazing humans that support them are overwhelmed and burnt out. Morale is at an all time low, while stress has hit at an all time high. Many students, especially the most disadvantaged kids, are not thriving. The entire educational system has hit an iceberg. It will fall to school leaders to right the ship and prevent their institutions from sinking.


But we school leaders are not okay. Early anecdotal data suggests that this year will see significantly more turnover at the top than before. Work-life balance seems a hazy, distant memory if ever we had it. We put on our brightest smiles to cheer our exhausted teams towards the finish line, then collapse at the end of the day with nothing left inside. We made hard decisions before, but now, every decision we make -- reopen or not? hybrid or all in? masks required and when? enrichment programs? staffing? scheduling? -- guarantees a line of haters marching to our door. Before the pandemic, we could pull out the end of year playbook and just do what we’ve always done for testing, class parties, and graduation ceremonies. Now everything has to be designed from scratch.


It’s like being brand new all over again, which naturally brings up questions: Why am I doing this? Can it even be done? Is it worth it?


Three types of synergy


The Oxford English Dictionary defines synergy as “the extra energy, power, success, etc. that is achieved by two or more people, companies or elements working together, instead of on their own.” There are three types of synergy that can help educators recover from the school year from hell -- identity synergy, work-life synergy, and relationship synergy.


Intentionally rediscovering what in our work brings us meaning and joy and aligning that to what we do each day is the first solution. For us educators, especially leaders, this summer might be the perfect time to reassess who we are and why we do what we do. Philosopher and educator, Howard Thurman says: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The research strongly suggests that meaningful work is a key linchpin, not only for a happy life, but for longevity, health, and performance. Thus, if you can find synergy between your identity on one side, and what the world needs on the other, the meaningful work that arises can restore you.


However, as Michael Steger so eloquently puts it: “Meaningful work, in a sense, is where the work itself is rewarding and worth doing—regardless of pay. And that’s the downside… you find yourself in the position of being so motivated and driven to do deeply meaningful work that you keep absorbing cutbacks, widening responsibility, larger caseloads, and more late nights.” Just as important as finding meaning in one’s work is finding a way for work and life to synergize.


I use the phrase “work-life synergy” intentionally and choose it over the idea of “work-life balance”. To me, “work-life balance” brings up the image of a brass balance scale with a pan for “work” on one side and a pan for “life” on the other. It implies some simple bean counting exercise might allow one to add the right number of beans to each side of the scale to reach a magical point of “balance”. Does a bubble bath balance out staying up late worrying about a struggling student? Does an afternoon with your kids in the park balance out a difficult performance evaluation conversation? Michael Steger puts it this way: “Balance requires the ability to put things in separate spots. Work goes here, kids go there, partner goes there, parents, well, let’s just see; fitness goes way over there, volunteering, friends, pets, travel, learning, each in its separate spot so that it all balances. And then you get an urgent text while you’re lacing up your running shoes and it all comes crashing down.” I don’t know about you, but bean counting doesn’t work for me.


In contrast, what if work and life could synergize instead of “balance”? When all your activities, whether personal or professional, all make you come alive and coordinate seamlessly, that to me is the Holy Grail. One of my clients today called it a “convergence point”, when all areas of one’s life are all at a 10 out of 10, and no one area gets all the attention while the others get neglected. That’s true work-life synergy and a long-lasting solution to the problem facing educators.


Finally, there’s another kind of synergy that may really help educators at this time -- relationship synergy. In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and now replicated by many other longitudinal studies, it’s not money or achievement that brings health and happiness, it’s close relationships. In one of the most watched TED talks of all time, Robert Waldinger states: “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” The higher you rise in leadership, the lonelier you become. Thus, who is in your brain trust? Who do you have on speed dial to call in times of need or celebration? Who makes leadership less lonely, propels you to your greatest heights, and catches you when you fall? Whether it’s your spouse, a friend, a colleague, someone from your grad program, your coach, your therapist, or a mastermind group, those relationships make all the difference in the world.


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I can't recommend Michael Steger's article on meaningful work and work-life synergy enough.


Mastermind groups come from the world of business but are extremely helpful in education as well. Ideally, your own school's team is its own mastermind. There's also huge value in finding a mastermind of fellow school leaders. If you are interested in creating your own mastermind group, this article at Leadership.com offers great tips.


Going Further

I’m building a mastermind team of eight exceptional, passionate leaders in education to sustain you, celebrate your wins, and fail forward with you into the new school year. If you are a passionate educator, preschool through University, formal or informal, that is in (or aspiring towards) leadership roles, let’s talk.


There are two main strands to Synergy: leadership development and work-life synergy. Each meeting will have the bulk of the time devoted to drawing from the collective wisdom of the group to solve the most pressing common challenges in either area. Specific topics we will cover include:

  • Vision: Living into our calling in education and in leadership.

  • Skills and Knowledge: Learning the skills required for exceptional servant leadership. Learning what we can from 2020-21 -- take the best, let go of the rest.

  • Strategy: Taking action to make our biggest dreams a reality.

  • Mindset: Overcoming the inner critics and monsters that stand in our way.

  • Capacity: Creating healthy boundaries. Practicing self care. Developing stress resilience.

  • Service: Creating joy for ourselves and those around us. Supporting one another in this work.


Synergy launches in June over the quiet summer months. We’ll celebrate a much deserved summer vacation in July, then meet regularly August through November to sustain, grow, and thrive together as the new school year launches.


Thursdays 4-6 pm Pacific

Pre-Synergy (4-5 pm optional 1 hour check ins for those pre-enrolled)

  • May 6

  • May 20


Synergy (4-6 pm)

  • Creating

  • June 3

  • June 10

  • June 17

  • July 15 (optional)

  • Sustaining

  • Aug 5

  • Aug 12

  • Aug 19

  • Growing

  • Sep 9

  • Sep 16

  • Sep 23

  • Thriving

  • Oct 7

  • Oct 21

  • Nov 4

  • Nov 18


Synergy is not your typical professional development where it's possible to sit back and soak it in. This is not a conference where you attend the few sessions that interest you and then go back to doing more or less what you were doing before with a few improvements. Synergy is about transformation. Synergy is making a commitment to rising into the leader you were meant to be. It’s about joining a flock where sometimes you fly in point position and other times you draft off other’s wings. As James Clear says, “True behavior change is identity change… Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” So who do you want to be? And how will you get there?


If you want a flock to fly into 2021-22 with, email me at iysalter@gmail.com or sign up for an hour on my calendar to discuss.


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